The clicks on life’s odometer resound with more of an echo on certain days—one’s birthday, usually.
In Paul Auster’s diary of his sixty-fourth year, Winter Journal, Auster recounts a moment in which the actor Jean-Louis Trintignant tells him solemnly, “Paul, at fifty-seven I felt old. Now, at seventy-four, I feel much younger than I did then.” Auster writes that he was confused by the remark but that because it seemed important to Trintignant to tell him this, he did not ask the actor to clarify. Auster writes that as he has entered his sixties, the comment has come to appear true in its own way, for him.
Today, November 18, I am fifty-one. In Trintignant’s schema, at least six more years of aging until I feel old lies ahead for me, to be followed by the youth of old age. (The great actor himself is still with us, eighty-eight years young, with a birthday in December.) It is probably true that I feel younger at fifty-one than I felt in my thirties, and this is not from a sense of renewed vigor or newly discovered stamina. It is more that life as I have experienced it has shifted my priorities away from the obsessions of my twenties and thirties: dollar bills and public esteem.
I tell myself that I should feel relief at what I just wrote, but I do not, not all the time certainly, but more now than a decade ago.
That word, “should,” has haunted my existence, has reduced every achievement to a smaller one and increased every challenge to one I ought not attempt. If I am somewhere, either physically or emotionally, I have either arrived later than I should have or I have arrived at the wrong spot altogether. I should feel relief that I think I know so much less than I thought I knew when I was twenty-one, ah, but, I do not always feel that as relief, so I am in the wrong somehow. Thus, there is a someplace or a someday in which I will be better, in which I will arrive, if only I could do more or have more or …
“Should” tells me that I am not enough unto myself. It is a belief in my own myth of scarcity, in which I do not possess enough money, have enough love, perform a sufficient number of good deeds, live a full enough life.
Someone wise explained to me some years ago that the desire to be anyplace other than where one is is the smallest definition of the concept of Hell. She was correct. I spend fewer days in that Hell.
Nostalgia is the emotional world’s expression of the belief in the scarcity of now. It is rarely, for me, a healthy feeling. (Does nostalgia qualify as an emotion itself? Is it a large enough feeling? So much of our entertainment economy depends on cultural nostalgia—we’ve been reliving the Nineties for quite a while now, which has been too bad, as I was there for the first go-round and I was not impressed.)
No doubt, I can be a nostalgia junkie about my personal life experiences, sometimes to the detriment of current, still-building-new-memories friendships. Here is a thought that I can visit and re-visit: I see an old photo of myself and I think I can return there. A previous year, another existence, is merely another place I have experienced, lived in, breathed the air of. The Nineties are only as far away as a bus ticket whose price is a bit out of my reach; I think I can visit 1979 as easily as I can visit Phoenix if I would just save up money for a couple of months. I am going to see Vermont again, I am going to visit Iowa again; I have not seen the Pacific Ocean yet, but I know I will. Next year, maybe. I’m not there now, but next year or in memory I can be there again. I know what the Eighties sounded like, what food tasted like then/there, just as I know what Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Poughkeepsie, New York, sounds like. The ability to visit one (Poughkeepsie) but not the other (1983) offends some part of me.
If anyone told me in 1983 that I would enjoy my life, I certainly would have assumed that this meant I was famous and wealthy. Neither fame nor wealth fell on me so far, yet I enjoy my life.
Perhaps at fifty-one, the shoulds are resounding with less of an echo on most days. That is most of what I enjoy. I am not calm, but I am calmer.
There are not many analogies to describe fifty-one as an age. There can be an emotional shock to reaching the round-number age of fifty, and I have found that a year into this decade, I have taken on the tone of a preschooler whenever I answer the question, “How old are you?” I reply with an audible exclamation point (“Fifty!”) and an expression on my face that communicates that I expect to be handed a muffin for my ability to count that high. This will not change any time soon, I do not think.
I am pleasantly surprised, after all. My parents are, too. My grandmother on my father’s side lived to ninety-eight and one day she joked to me that she had not felt old (that phrase again) until she noticed that each of her sons was past the retirement age of sixty-five.
There are analogies between my experience of fifty-one and the fifty-first element, antimony, it strikes me. Throughout history, antimony has been misunderstood, misidentified, overlooked. As a metalloid, it is in between metals and nonmetals, so when it is seen in nature, it is most frequently seen as part of the mineral stibnite. Antimony and stibnite are both silvery gray, so antimony has often been mistaken for lead, tin, silver. Silver mines have been started because a prospector mistook his find. Even antimony’s chemical symbol (Sb) reflects a confusion about its essence: Sb is for stibium because of the strong association between antimony and the stibnite that usually houses it.
Because antimony is almost always found tightly affiliated with other metals, usually stibnite, the word “antimony” itself reflects this. The Greek word antimonos can be translated as “not found unalloyed,” or “not found alone,” or more poetically, “against (anti) aloneness.”
Fifty-one: “Against aloneness.” Let this be the antimony year, then.
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